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Why delay the new School Act? Here are three possible reasons

February 8, 2010

Recently, the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta received an email from Alberta Education stating that a new School Act would not be introduced until the Fall sitting of the Legislature. Until receiving this email, school boards, stakeholders, and members of the public had been operating under the premise that new school legislation would be the focus of the Legislature’s spring sitting. This is no longer the case.

In the email, the deputy minister in charge of Alberta Education explains that an “overwhelming response to [the department’s] work and the need to strongly align the many departmental initiatives with new legislation” are the reasons behind the delay. He also notes that “I have benefited from the dialogue to date and look forward to further discussions.”

There are three ways to interpret the department’s email, none of which seems more compelling than the others. Thus, each interpretation of the email deserves a careful consideration before any conclusion can be formed about the future of Minister Hancock’s School Act review process. After all, any new piece of legislation – no matter how it is written and when it appears in the Legislature – will have a monumental impact on the capacity of school boards to run the province’s education system and serve their students, your children, and our communities.

One explanation is that Alberta Education has sent this email to buy more time for tweaking and drafting within the department. Throughout the School Act review process, Alberta Education has appeared to operate largely independent of the Minister’s consultations with school boards, stakeholders, and the public. This might explain why the email has characterized the extension of the process as an “overwhelming response to [the department’s] work” and not an overwhelming response to Minister Hancock’s invitation for undirected input and public dialogue. This might also explain why Alberta Education needs the entire spring and summer to “align the many departmental initiatives with new legislation.” If this is indeed the proper interpretation of the deputy minister’s email, the Public School Boards Association is decidedly unsupportive of this delay. New school legislation must be directed by public dialogue and stakeholder consultation, not by an Alberta Education-led management process.

Another interpretation: Minister Hancock has decided that the School Act review process would genuinely benefit from several additional months of consultation with school boards, stakeholders, and the public. The Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta is hopeful that this is the correct interpretation, and we are encouraged that the deputy minister has “benefitted from the dialogue” and “look[s] forward to further discussions.” As the dialogue and consultation moves forward, the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta will continue to keep Albertans up to date through this blog.

A final interpretation is that the government leadership, the government caucus, and cabinet have moved to keep new school legislation off the Legislature’s spring agenda. The government has reason to be concerned about its popular support. As a result, a kind of “don’t rock the boat – especially when the boat is listing” mentality could have discouraged the introduction of major legislation during the Spring sitting. A new School Act opens up several sensitive issues that could become incendiary. Do separate school systems for Catholic and Protestant minorities continue to hold relevance in the 21st century? Should private schools operated for private profits receive any amount of public funding? These are but two of several hot topics in which an uncomfortable government may not want become embroiled.

The Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta holds the view that positive initiatives with positive outcomes are the best ways to ensure citizen satisfaction. When the ship of government begins to list, it is not always enough to simply hold still and hope for a current that will carry you out of danger. It takes a concerted effort to regain balance and right the ship on an even keel. A new School Act that genuinely reflects the public’s vision of the future of education in our province could be precisely the kind of initiative that rebuilds support and reconnects a government with its citizens. Of course, for this to become the case, the government has to hear from its citizens that the School Act review is an important initiative. So, if you feel strongly about the future of education in Alberta, we encourage you to write to Minister Hancock, Premier Stelmach, and your MLA and express your desire to continue an open, consultative School Act review. Their contact information is available here.

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